Amateur Science and the Apparent Lack of High Impact Geo-Comms

I was trawling through Twitter during my lunch hour the other day and came across a random blog on fossils by an amateur palaeontologist (I forget which blog, apologies) and it suddenly occurred me: in how many other sciences can you have people who call themselves amateurs?

In geology, amateur collectors, fossil hunters, palaeontologists, mineralogists, petrologists (probably not volcanologists though) are commonplace, and it is perfectly acceptable to be a respected member of the geological community as an amateur – provided you get your facts right. The amateur community is very influential in geology, as collectors often have important specimens that would be extremely useful to professionals or museums. And yet, I had never really thought about how in other sciences you don’t generally find amateur physicists, biologists, chemists and so on.Being an amateur in these professions is regarded less highly than an amateur geologist and generally classed as more of an interest rather than ‘amateur’.

So what?

It may seem like a pretty minor observation but I think it hints at something bigger, an accessibility associated with geoscience that doesn’t exist so much in other sciences. Not because other sciences are less interesting or fun but because of the nature of the work involved in becoming part of the profession is more difficult: its easy to go rock collecting in your spare time using a notebook, rock hammer and hand lens (even a microscope if you happen to have one) to find out about the geological history of an area but accessing chemicals, a hadron collider (OK, a bit excessive) or dissecting animals are not household activities.

Geology is easy to pick up and get excited about. You really can’t get away from it no matter where you look, buildings made of stone (or derived from rock materials), landforms defined by the rocks and structures under your feet – even the vegetation you see is defined by the type of soils that it grows on, influenced by the rock’s chemistry. And of course there are fossils. Nothing is more exciting than finding your own little piece of preserved life from millions of years ago – especially if you are under 15! Getting kids into geology and becoming amateurs is incredibly easy because it can be a DIY discipline in many ways (not to understate geological research – which is essential and best left to the professionals!). Dinosaurs, volcanoes and life on Mars are pretty much some of the coolest things to study and geology covers all of them! Even once you may have retired from the profession it is tempting to keep those collections you have had for so long and remain a collector who actively uses and researchers their collection.

The problem with geology however is that it is not well enough known in the science arena. Not enough (high impact) science communication and public engagement connects broad audiences with geology, even with its fascinating hooks for many people. Although many kids will go through a stage of dinosaur-mania this does not always seem to last. Once you get older, I find that the engagement with geological sciences seems to trail off but pick up again when you become retired and like to go on ramblers walks or special interest groups.

Why is this? I really don’t know, but it may be to do with the fact that geology is an amalgamation of lots of other sciences that have been applied to earth problems so when it comes to science communication it seems to get left out because it is not necessarily a science in its own right. Silly, when the fact that you have a set of sciences that are already applied to awesome situations like volcanoes and mass extinctions you could use this to teach about chemistry and physics as well as geology. Maybe also unfortunately the demographic is ageing when it comes to geological societies. I know of a few clubs/societies for young geologists (below 18) and many for adults (comprising mostly over 60’s) but there is little in the way of societies or public engagement for anything in between specifically aimed at geology – not including university societies as involvement tends to cease after graduation.

Maybe the nature of the discipline in working for industry influences the amount of science communication in this area. Many who do a geology degree go on either to academia or industry meaning a high percentage of young graduates will be in commercial companies whose primary goal is to make money and not produce and disseminate knowledge like universities or other organisations.

I definitely think there is more room for high impact (i.e. large scale multidisciplinary publications such as Scientific American, Nature Blogs, the Guardian etc.) geology communication, and would love to know if anyone does know of groups that are led by a large cohort of young geology professionals, and why there appears to be less exciting high impact geology communication out there.

Are You Collecting for The Future?

This article was published in the July 2012 issue of Rockwatch Magazine – the club for young geologists.

What does your geological collection represent?

It’s a big question, and it could be a number of different things: the geology of the country, area or town you live in, a set of beautiful colourful and fascinating objects that please you when you look at them or a wealth of scientific knowledge just sitting there ready to be unlocked.

My collection represents my childhood, my fascination with beautiful natural objects and the realisation of the wonderous, boundless knowledge that can be gained from each and every specimen. My collection represents the journey I took to become who I am today (although I still have far to go!).

To me, the meaning of my collection is something very personal, but other collections – like at the Natural History Museum in London and its great mineral gallery – may mean something entirely different. I see the past few hundred years of scientific discovery embedded in those rows of cabinets, and the histories of the people who donated specimens to the museum in the vast corridors of storage behind the scenes.

Collections mean different things to different people too. People will value collections differently and for many reasons, but not just in monetary terms.

Take Sir Arthur Russell, the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading who lived from 1878 to 1964. He was fascinated by minerals from a young age, and at 8 years old he had already visited his first working mine. From then on, he was hooked. His passion lay in piecing together a collection that represented the whole mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland, and managed to create one of the most comprehensive collections of British minerals to date. His collection became extremely important and well known, and after his death even universities all the way across the Atlantic in the USA wanted part of his collection!

The collection meant everything to him: “It is my earnest hope and desire that this collection upon which I have bestowed so much loving care and so much of my life shall remain intact and be well cared for wherever it finds a resting place”, a quote from Sir Arthur Russell. Arthur’s collection now resides at the Natural History Museum in London in the hope that it would be kept in perpetuity, meaning that it will remain here forever.

The task of keeping objects in the way they were donated is harder than it sounds because all objects and materials will change over time, no matter how careful you are. This type of change is called degradation, and is caused simply by factors such as wear and tear through use, the storage environment (such as high or low temperatures or humidity – the amount of water in the air relative to the temperature) or the amount of light something is exposed to. These factors can cause changes such as breakage, crumbling or fading which alter the condition of the object relative to its original state in which it was given to the museum.

To help slow the process of degradation (a practice called conservation) museums come up with ideas to assess how the material’s condition has changed compared to the state it was originally documented in, and use this to decide how to conserve the material.

Think about your collections. Do you think they will last 100 years and end up in a museum? If so, what might you do to help make sure people can appreciate them like you do, and see the full value of your collections?

See http://www.russellsoc.org/russell.html or http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/rocks-soils-and-landforms/fossils-in-scotland/fossil-code/ on how to collect responsibly, or ask your local museum how to best care for your specimens when you get them home. If you would like to know more about the work I am doing take a look at https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/ .

Sir Arthur Russell and the Preservation of a National Collection

This article was Published in the Geologists Association Magazine in June 2012 (Vol 11 No. 2).

I started collecting at a very early age. I was a toddler when I began to pick up my first rocks from the beach with my mum and dad, seven when I created my first properly displayed geological collection and eight when I won my first prize with Rockwatch for my ‘mineral museum’.

Sir Arthur Russell (1878-1964), the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading also began collecting at a very young age and by the time he was eight years old had visited his first working mine, a trip that helped develop a hobby and a passion that would stay with him for the next 78 years of his life. His stunning collection evolved into one of the most significant British regional mineral collections to date, comprising approximately 13,000 specimens and is one of the Natural History Museum’s largest and most significant stand-alone collections.

Russell collected almost half of the specimens himself; developing relationships with owners of other mineral collections and workers at important geological sites where he acquired many scientifically significant specimens that otherwise might never have been publicly available. Today, many of the localities he collected at have disappeared; consequently Russell’s specimens hold integral information on the geology, geography and cultural history of these sites.

The collection was left with the Natural History Museum in London on his death, as requested by Russell – to the great annoyance of other institutions, such as Harvard. In his will, he conditioned that the collection be stored in perpetuity, together in its original ten oak cabinets with his cataloguing system. The association of Russell’s original cabinets, labelling and cataloguing system mean that his collection does not only represent a near complete record of the mineralogy of the British Isles at the time of assimilation, but also an important historical and cultural resource.

The practice of keeping an object ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state. This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of degradation is limited.

To a casual visitor, it may be difficult to imagine the need to conserve a mineralogical collection. The truth is however that some minerals do degrade, sometimes causing catastrophic damage to the specimen or even to those around it. Because of the nature of the Russell Collection, this kind of damage may not only have implications for the scientific integrity of a specimen, but also the historical context. Mineral degradation can affect associated labels, rendering them unreadable, or worse, completely disintegrating them. In the case of Russell’s collection, part of its uniqueness lies in the labels handwritten by Russell himself in his characteristic script, so preventing loss of any aspect of his collection is essential.

In a climate where museums are under tough economic pressure, with severe cuts to funding and staff it may be more difficult than ever for museums to ensure that collections receive the care they need. Without heritage collections we would lack essential information that forms part of the basis of our extensive knowledge of the world today. What makes a collection such as Russell’s so unique is the range of values that can be associated with it – scientific, historical, educational, cultural, aesthetic and inspirational. It not only provides a significant mineralogical resource for researchers across the world, but also a historical record of people and places, that without the collection we may have known much less about.

Looking back to my own collection, (although far from the stunning host of Russell’s specimens!) it provided me with the notion that I wanted to work in museums with other geological collections. Since being introduced to The Russell Collection, it has inspired me to continue to pursue my aim through studying an MRes in Heritage Science at UCL and I am now about to embark on a project focusing on Russell’s Collection at the Natural History Museum. Through the project I hope to learn much more about museums and how to care for collections as well as how to contribute to the preservation and awareness of our great national geological resources.

For more information on The Russell Collection, The Natural History Museum or the work I am doing please visit: http://www.russellsoc.org/ , http://www.nhm.ac.uk/ , or https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/.

My Experience at the Natural History Museum: What IS information?

To many heritage professionals, ‘information’ is a quality that is intrinsic to an object. In some ways it may also be considered a value, but here we hit upon a slight conceptual barrier when, to my mind and a few others in the field of heritage studies and philosophy, a value cannot be intrinsic. Value is something that is attributed to an object, whether that be an artwork, a fragment of a medieval pitcher or a mineral specimen. To me, this means that there can be no intrinsic value of an object. If something is not used, kept or even possibly known about, it has no value to anyone. However, if something is then discovered we can immediately put a perceived value onto that object. This may even be the perception that because it has been hidden or lost for any number of years that it therefore must be important, and hence valuable. It’s almost like the ‘philosophical’ question of whether there is a sound if a tree falls and there is no one to hear it. Apart from an object that has lain forgotten about does not generally make any vibrations which is perceived as sound, or in our case value. Ahem.

Anyway, what I was trying to say was that ‘information’ is not always such an easy concept to grasp either.

And the idea that ‘information’ is not an easy concept to grasp was actually something I found difficult to understand too.

So where are we going here?

Basically, I wanted to give you a little flavour of one of the conceptual landmines that are impeding my safe transit across the field of value studies and in the process of doing so, understand things a little clearer myself!

What alerted me to this little philosophical conundrum, was the first day or so of starting part of my masters project at the Natural History Museum in London. For those of you that have not read CSI, but for Museums, you may need a little filling in at this point.

I am currently studying an MRes Heritage Science at University College London, where my project focuses around the identification and understanding of values associated with geological collections. My interest in the subject sprung from my lifelong interest in geology and geological collections which culminated in a degree in geology from the University of Edinburgh. Combine this with the wish to work in museums and a long term interest in history and archaeology and Poof! You get an MRes in Heritage Science on Geological Collections: Identifying Unique Values. To see an earlier version of the project and the poster to go with it see: http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/graduate/csh/attachments/benvghr3-robb

In working with the Russell Collection at the NHM, I wanted to assess the extend to which the collection could be used to further quantify values identified through questionnaire data. I hypothesised that certain elements of collections could be seen as components that relate specifically to certain values, such as research notes relating to a personal value, physical damage relating to aesthetic value, locality data relating to cultural value (if just one example) and finally labels relating to ‘information’ value.

Unfortunately, the flaw with this is that I do not yet have the analysed data from the questionnaires telling me the values associated with collections. However, this is why I needed a hypothesis, and the above is therefore something I am going to test. Which is also where we came to our other little friend, ‘information’:

Is ‘information’ a value? Is ‘information’ just a big word which encompasses a lot of other little intricacies of an object or specimen which are essential to its existence (intrinsic property?). How do you go about measuring ‘information’?

Well, first off, I decided that within the scope of this project there is so many times you need to use the word ‘information’, but little to define in any way what people mean by it – especially when you are asking mineralogists, petrologists, palaeontologists, curators, conservators, academics and industry professionals. So I asked the question: “what does the term ‘information’ mean to you?” in the questionnaire to see if there is any common ground between them.

While analysing responses, I was perusing the Russell Collection with my supervisor at the NHM and discussing what changes to various important ‘components’ of specimens could affect the way values are perceived. What we knew was that in geological collections the label is extremely important. Without the label a geological specimen is almost useless. To be able to assign any importance or future use to the specimen there needs to be a locality associated with the specimen and ideally an identification as well. This is an incredibly easy concept to entertain for anyone familiar with geological collections and something that generally doesn’t even need to be explained. However, try explaining this to someone who is familiar with other heritage collections – art, archives, furniture etc. and you find you hit a few stumbling blocks.

Information is something carried by all objects. In many instances in heritage collections this information is easily accessible, such as in a painting, the style, brushwork and paints will usually give clues as to the time period and possibly artist who painted it. A document in an archive will have the paper or parchment, the ink and the writing or pictures on it by which to identify it. Anyone who has watched Antiques Roadshow or similar will be familiar with experts identifying the time period, make and sometimes maker of an object through simple observation of a random object.

For something mentioned above to be missing ‘information’, physical damage to the object obviously causes the most harm. Crucial ‘information’ such as a key word on a document, the makers mark on a cabinet or chemically degraded paints could all affect the ‘information’ stored in the object. However, with a rock or mineral specimen such physical damage may not be important or cause any important loss of ‘information’. If the label was in some way not present though, this would cause significant problems for the value of the specimen – whether that be scientific, historic, or educational.

To conclude, ‘information’ can be complicated, and I am very much looking forward to finding out what comes out of the questionnaire and the rest of my time at the NHM. No doubt I will also be blogging about some of the other experiences I have in the process!

Geodiversity and A Sense of ‘Place’

Maybe it’s why I have such an attachment to Turner and van Dyck. Maybe it’s why I did geology. But it’s certainly why I want to work with natural heritage and the outdoors.
I have always had a strong sense of ‘place’ in the landscape. I was raised in a town in East Lothian, a beautiful area of Scotland with rolling hills, great Carboniferous geology and a strong sense of history in the archaeology of the area. I also spent a lot of time across Scotland looking at rocks in various place as well as visiting many castles and historic houses and gardens as a child with my mum. Later when studying geology at university we had at least one long field trip a year, many of which were to Scotland and all of which were to stunning areas of natural beauty. I think this helped develop a strong sense of ‘place’ in me, in completely natural and ‘untouched’ environments of which you find many in Scotland, and therefore remains somewhere I think I will always want to return to.
So it is no surprise that artists who paint landscapes make me feel so happy when I look at them. I can stare for ages at the scenes, a moment captured in time, which encapsulates parts of the natural and human landscape at the time, and implies that the people working the land are as intrinsic to it as the trees and the rivers that run through them. Interestingly enough, Geoscientist (the fellowship magazine of the Geological Society) also had an article this month that touched on the subject of painting the dynamic and geological landscapes of the 19th century. The article focuses on Thomas Moran, who was different from Turner or van Dyck in that he painted landscapes generally devoid of human interactions, focusing on the natural forces that shaped the landscape such as water and wind. It was also due to his personal interest in geology that made him delve into the realms of his artistic subject, and I think that oddly enough the interpretation of the natural forces in his paintings make the environments almost more surreal, and some have compared his paintings to Dante’s Inferno and his journey through hell. But don’t let this put anyone off who fancies a quick jaunt into the geological countryside! I think that in communicating the actions of natural forces in creating the landscape at that time – and still probably today – it gives the onlooker a sense of wonder and awe.

Geodiversity is extremely important. It describes the diversity within abiotic nature and gives it a name with which people can relate to the idea that it is important. Biodiversity is a ‘buzz’ word and wherever it is used people will automatically feel that this ‘place’ is to be conserved. What about the geology of the area? Not only the geology but the records of the geomorphological processes that have created the landscape we see today on top of which the archaeology produced by our ancestors has barely scraped the surface. Without this diversity we would not be able to live on this planet. It describes the beginning of the Earth and life on the planet; the massive processes that have formed our continents and oceans; the minerals, rocks and fossils that hold out mineral wealth in the form of ore and fossil fuel resources; the climates the planet endures many of which we have learned to thrive in such as rivers, coastal environments, glaciation, deserts and finally the record of continual processes like weathering and formation of soils.

We value these diverse materials, landforms and processes in many ways as the resources that the Earth’s geodiversity gives us is used in every aspect of life from manufacturing almost everything to art materials (and inspiration) to household goods like toothpaste, plaster and of course fuel. We therefore value these resources for their economic and functional purposes, and in tune with this for their research purposes – without research into these materials we would not have these resources to exploit and use in out daily lives. With research also comes education, we need to pass on our knowledge of these resources to future generations and hope that they can get even more information out of these than we previously have. We have already discussed how artists have used landscapes as inspiration for many works of art, but  the aesthetics of geodiversity can extend to tourism – many people travel from all over the world to climb mountains in Scotland and other areas across the world – but the landscape is also of importance to the people who live there all year round. As I began this piece, the landscape and ‘place’ of my area of Scotland is very important to me and holds lots of great memories of which the geology is an intrinsic part of them. Therefore we also associate with these areas cultural values, across the world there are geologically important sites that attract spiritual value to landscapes or forms such as Uluru in Australia or the North American Indians to areas of Central North America. This links with the history of the people who have been associated with the landscape through time, recorded in our history books as well as archaeological remains (as I mentioned are present in my local area too). People interact directly with the landscapes they are attached to and many like to collect pieces of their ‘place’ to keep with them at all times. I think all humans have minor cases of kleptomania, but some definitely more than others. People who collect part of our geodiversity do not have to assign meaning to the objects, and definitely do not have to alter the object in any way from the original state in which it was found. This makes geological collections very different from other collections in that they are still very much part of the landscape they came from when they have been in a collection for 100 years or 2.

In my personal collection, a lot of the specimens are from places I have been and collected them from in Scotland, making the majority of the collection Scottish and attached to that ‘place’. Some of the material has been bought or given to me by other collectors, but the main value to me is that I have personally found many of the specimens. Other famous collections and collectors have specific interests that can sometimes be related to a specific ‘place’ such as Arthur Russell’s collection held at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). His collection represents Britain’s mineralogy and holds many of the best examples of British minerals. I am currently working with this collection and I always get more excited and awed when I remember that these amazing minerals are from where I live, or better still from somewhere I know and have been in Scotland. I recently got very over excited when I found a (not even particularly visually stunning) specimen that was from the area of my geology dissertation on the Isle of Skye and part of the metasomatic zone around the large granite intrusion of Beinn an Dubhaich at the centre of my area. Funnily enough, of all the visually stunning and historically important specimens I have held and worked with in his collection so far, that is the one I remember the most.

Some museums do capitalise on local collections, such as Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining in the Leadhills, Scotland which not only helps you discover the geology of the surrounding area (including getting down to do a bit of gold panning) but it also has the mine and the old miners homes open to the public to help visitors understand and connect to the entire history and culture of the area. As a child I visited Wanlockhead many times and always thoroughly enjoyed it. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a vast mineral collection, not much of which is now on display since the renovation and opening last summer. I know from discussion with the research curator of mineralogy there that the collections held, studied and continually collected are focused on Scottish material but this is not reflected well in the public displays of the museum. The museum’s public display focuses on educating the public about the formation of the Earth and the geological processes that have shaped it since then. The gallery is very good in my opinion and has some great specimens on display, but personally I feel that the museum is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in what’s out in their back yards! Edinburgh especially has fantastic geology on its doorstep (Arthur’s Seat) and by simply connecting visitors with what’s right there in front of them could easily give them more inspiration to go out and learn more about it. I know from Russell’s collection at the NHM that Scotland has a wealth of beautiful and fascinating minerals and rocks out there – so why don’t we see them?

I can’t answer the question now, but I can’t help but feel that we could learn a lot from understanding the links between ‘place’ and geological collections better – and even between other ‘places’ and heritage collections. Is there anything to gain from better linking together collections with localities to benefit collection’s management, educational and scientific point of view? Lets hope someone finds out soon!

Brains and Plasticising – Getting Past the ‘Squeam’ Barrier

Yesterday I went to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on ‘BRAINS’. I didn’t think I would be squeamish at all when looking at all these bottled noggins, part of what is eerily called ‘the spirit collections’.  In actuality I was in awe that these were ACTUAL BRAINS sitting there, only a few centimetres away from me and not protected by  a skull, meninges or skin.

For me, the thing that sends tingles down my spine is the idea of plasticising. Unfortunately, when I Google this too many ‘Images for…’ come up and slightly freak me out, meaning that a definition of the process is lacking in this blog. I can’t quite put my finger on why this really pushes the buttons of my squeamishness – maybe pumping a body with plasticiser conjures up ideas of something between ‘Planet Terror’ scenes involving Bruce Willis and ‘The Hulk’ when he expands and becomes green.

And although yesterday I was in a room filled with brains, suspended from their normal decomposition through submersion in methylated spirit and accosted by videos of brain surgery (pretty unnerving) the piece to really set it off for me was the plasticised vein system of the brain. Why? Well, after a discussion with a fellow brain fiend at the exhibit I began to ask myself what really is the difference between looking at a spirit collection and a plasticised body?

I used to have an issue with black pudding. The concept of eating what is essentially just blood was a bit gruesome, although I thoroughly enjoy vampire lore. But, after some careful thought I decided that if I eat steak rare and love haggis then really I have no feet to stand on when it comes to a justifiable argument for not eating black pudding. I love it.

I also love going to the stuffed animal section of museums, and have no problem looking at huge dinosaur fossil skeletons. And in all honesty, when it comes to looking at a plasticised animal I don’t feel quite as squeamish. In the Natural History Museum they currently have an exhibition on plasticised animals, and have a great big plasticised camel in the entrance hall on show.  When I first saw this I was intrigued and thought it looked great although I was not aware of the exhibition at the time I had a sneaking suspicion about what it was…but I decided to feign ignorance with myself and enjoy the show.

So maybe there is some sort of link here, I can look at animals in any form and not feel a huge sense of ‘squeam’ but that changes when it comes to humans being plasticised. Why? I read an interesting blog today about the Brains exhibit at the Wellcome Collection which touched on this slightly. He talked about the avoidance of things that make us remember our own mortality, even such important things as writing a will. Is this what makes me feel odd about plasticising? Possibly. But something more than that is the idea that these are people who have died and should be decomposing. They are not meant to be in this stasis, in these poses. You can, I hear, ask to be plasticised in your will so then possibly you could argue that they are meant to be like this. Maybe I feel that they should be allowed to rest, to be sitting in their graves and allowed to lie there for eternity rather than be put on display in all their stripped, plasticised glory. Maybe it is just something I would never want for me.  But this still doesn’t explain why I do not feel the same about a stuffed animal.

My brain fiend friend noted something else, he said that some people don’t like to be reminded that they are just an animal. Some people want to feel that humans are better than the world around them, more intelligent and some sort of higher being. However, we both agreed that it’s nice to be reminded that you are just an animal, a natural being that has evolved just like every other species on this planet. Sometimes it’s reassuring in such a fast paced and stressful world that we build ourselves. Seeing the inner workings of the human body puts us in our rightful place in the kingdom of life, in a comparable state to other species, such as what Darwin discovered and later many scientists would study: “…all hands start out in much the same way. There is a network of many genes that builds a hand, and all hands are built by variations on that same network. Some sculpt the wrist; others lengthen the fingers. It takes only subtle shifts in these genes to make fingers longer, to make some of them disappear, to turn nails into claws.” National Geographic Magazine, The Common Hand. Additionally, I just finished reading the book Prey by Michael Crichton – a good read for anyone feeling a bit high on the food chain.

To be honest, I think the reason I don’t feel the ‘squeam’ when I visit stuffed animal displays is because I have done so since I was a child. I did not think of my own mortality at that time, and certainly not that of any other animal. Also, crucially I had not encountered any horror films of books at that stage either!

In the end, I will be going to see the current plasticised exhibition at the Natural History Museum which is on until the 16th September. Regardless of squeamishness, knowledge and understanding of science is crucial and I would highly recommend everyone to get a grip and go see the dead plastic things.

Photo courtesy of Cameron Robinson

The Online Initiative: A Look at the British Geological Survey

The thing about rocks in collections is that there are a lot of questions surrounding them, hanging around like elephants in the room, sheepishly trying to make their bulky form as invisible as possible. At some point someone needs to address those elephants and tell them to scram. In my opinion, now is a perfect time.

At the British Geological Survey (BGS), there are some great initiatives that not only help budge those elephants but also put in place a fantastic source of information about their collections, many of which I am sure no-one even knows exist!

The issue of destructive sampling in museums is ‘touchy’. When it comes to geological collections the boundaries are hazy. We need to sample rocks to learn about them, and who is really there to say that we shouldn’t? But my question is how much is too much, and how can we come to making this decision on a unanimous basis?

The BGS has relatively recently begun making digital archives of their collections, including boreholes, rocks, minerals, fossils and thin sections. Currently they have a search record online at: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/data/boreholescans/ where you can access onshore borehole records and their associated metadata, along with hydrogeological data from the National Well Archive. This not only allows a larger community to understand and interpret some of the available data but ensures that needless sampling of boreholes does not occur.

In some instances, companies or institutions may ask to sample a particular item the BGS has in its various collections. Either someone is sent to sample it or the BGS will sample a part of it themselves and send it off. The problem in the past with this process is that the company or institution may realise once they have the sample that this is not the correct piece, and request another one. This wastes valuable samples. The online initiative allows users to access a very basic set of information about the specimen in the first place, from which they can then decide on whether this is the right kind of specimen they need in the first place and roughly where and how the best way to sample it could be.

In another instance, the wider availability of this data on the BGS’s collections means that users can find out if the geographical areas they need information on have already been sampled. For example a particular stratigraphic sequence in the North Sea could have already been boreholed and a simple online archive of this could allow the user to not sample that area again.

The other initiatives the BGS have include a database of their collections – from Christmas cards to mineral collections – http://geoscenic.bgs.ac.uk/asset-bank/action/browseItems?categoryId=1022&categoryTypeId=1. Suddenly we have an amazing resource of information on collections that I would bet a lot of people didn’t know existed!

They are currently digitally photographing thin sections from their vast collection, a process I have seen first hand (and even taken a few photos!) up in their Edinburgh offices. At present, they have photographed around 30,000 thin sections with the help of several volunteers – from students to retirees.

The topic of online databases and museums is a hot spot of activity in the culture sector, just take a look at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog),

http://www.futureofmuseums.org/ (http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/digesting-future-of-museum-ethics.html),

the latest from http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012 (http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/blog)

or a museum technologists opinion at http://openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/museum-technologists-redux-its-not.html.

Online databases of collections such as the BGS’s initiative, or that of many national and non-national museums are an important modern factor in museums engagement and management. For museums it is more important to make sure that they include their vast quantity of online visitors, but for those who may feel there is no substitute for the ‘real thing’ make sure the institution still entices people with their content.  Not only could these online initiatives help in management issues such as destructive sampling but in gaining more information from the objects and materials themselves using techniques such as crowdsourcing, or purely getting more people inspired and involved with their local or national heritage.

If you have any comments on how online resources are used in the geological or heritage sector, leave a comment below!